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“Alright, everyone, please take your seats. It’s dissection day!”
The class buzzed in anticipation, and I reluctantly made my way to the back table. For a month and a half, I had been dreading this day. I’d tried to opt out on several occasions, but mom refused to sign the forms. Now, it was here. On a cold metal slab. Staring at me with a frozen expression that I could only determine as fear.
Mr. Bridges went over safety procedures at the front of the classroom, as I listened intently to his instruction, trying to ignore the scent of formaldehyde creeping into my nostrils. My lab partner, on the other hand, was fearless. From my peripheral vision, I watched him lift the cadaver’s limb, waving it at one of his friends who, in turn, did the same with his. I could feel my vision tunneling, when Mr. Bridges had finally handed out the instruction booklets for the procedure, and allowed us to begin.
First, we had to determine its gender. Ours was considerably smaller than some of the others, but, as with any species, that could have been a determinant of age. After observing an example of each from our textbook, we concluded that it was a female. My partner had no inhibitions as we moved onto internal examination. I read the first set of directions to him, and immediately, he flopped the corpse over on its stomach and, with his scalpel, made the first incision vertically from its throat to the bottom of its abdomen, tearing through the skin and the thin layer of fat and muscle. I was surprised when instead of crimson, a shiny, clear substance was released; embalming fluid, I assumed.
He then made two horizontal slices perpendicular to his initial cut, creating two wide flaps we pinned down on either side. My head was swimming again, as I stared at the entrails glistening under the harsh light of the classroom fluorescence. After removing the bulk of bone and cartilage, we made our way down the torso, identifying various organs, when we reached a sac near the lower abdomen that was not on the list of those to identify. Against my protests, my partner sliced into the sac, releasing fluid and bringing one of my biggest fears to realization:
Our cadaver was pregnant.
They told us it happened between one to three times throughout each dissection period. The cadavers had been humanely euthanized, they said, but it was not always easy to tell which of the females were with child. When I asked why they did not simply give us cadavers that had died of natural causes, Mr. Bridges explained that many of those cadavers would not represent functioning, healthy organs, such as the ones that had been euthanized ahead of their time. He claimed that the organization we received them from only euthanized strays, or those that no longer served a continuous purpose. I thought back to the one I'd had as a child. I called him Thomas, and wondered now if he had even been a male to begin with. He was a loyal companion, but one day, when I returned home from school, he was nowhere to be found. Mom told me he’d run away, and I feared now that perhaps he or she had been subject to an equal fate of the creature laying on the table in front of me.
My partner raised his hand, and Mr. Bridges came over to inspect our find. Though we knew it was a fetus, I probably would have dismissed it as a parasite or something, as it looked nothing like its host.
“Two points extra credit!” he said. I felt nauseous.
We went to work on the head. My partner sliced through the tendons at either side of the mouth, and sawed at the bone, causing the mandible to fall open and release a white, dried-up, worm-like thing I could only assume was its tongue. He then slit the folds covering her eyes, leaving two gaping, brown orbs staring straight up at the ceiling. Using the crescent scoop, he gently slid the metal ridge into the eye socket, thrusting upward as the eye tore from its optic nerve and landed on the tray next to my hand. I flinched and he laughed at me, taking the eye into his hand and pretending it was one of his own. The cranial dissection took the longest, because of the amount of bone that had to be removed. Eventually, we were able to reach the brain. It was relatively small, compared to other mammals we had studied, but still incredibly complex.
The whole dissection thing really wasn't that bad, until Mr. Bridges made a final announcement.
“Don’t forget, each partner must make at least one incision on your cadaver per section.”
I froze. I begged my partner to lie for me and say I’d done so, but Bridges had ears like a hawk. He was at our table a mere seconds later, and decided that since I had let my partner do all the work up to that point, I would have to complete the final section on my own.
I tensed up as I went through the remainder of our list. The only thing left to do was to dissect one of the limbs. Trembling, I took the scalpel from my partner and hovered it over the cadaver’s right arm. My heartbeat quickened, as I pressed the knife into her skin, pressing farther and farther down until I hit bone. I wanted to scream. I slid the scalpel slowly down the length of the forearm, then made two horizontal cuts, as we had done with the torso. After removing excess tendon and muscle with my glove, I reached down to grab hold of the bone. With one quick hint of pressure, it snapped, releasing bloody bone marrow all over my face. My partner laughed, and my vision tunneled before I eventually blacked out.
When I came to, I was in the nurse’s office. I looked at her sheepishly, as she smiled and handed me a glass of water.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “I had a similar reaction, the first time I dissected a human.”